Suicide Rates and the Pandemic

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Suicide Rates and the Pandemic     

Jim Windell

            We know that stress for many – if not most – people increased during the pandemic. But did this increased amount of anxiety translate into more suicides?

            And if so, who was more likely to kill themselves?

           Suicide rates in the United States did increase from 1999 to 2018, and then started to fall in 2019, according to Sally Curtin, co-author of a new study from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCS). Monthly suicides were lower in 2020 than in 2019 from March through October and in December, Curtin, who is a demographic/health statistician at NCHS, points out.

           Early in 2020, sociologists were expecting a “perfect storm” of suicide risks during the pandemic. However, says Dr. Paul Nestadt, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, early local data sets from the U.S. and abroad have almost universally been demonstrating a decrease in suicide rates. The report from NCHS, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that despite the anxieties and tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, overall suicide rates in the United States fell by about 3% between 2019 and 2020.

           But the number of suicides rose among some populations.

           “This data release confirms those early indicators, both in terms of the overall decrease as well as the increase in suicides among people of color, who were arguably hit harder by the true toll of the pandemic,” said Nestadt.

           During the same time frame when overall suicide rates dropped, suicides increased among people aged 10 to 34. They also rose among Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Hispanic males, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

           Curtin explains that the increases occurred in those groups that were hit hardest by depression, anxiety, substance abuse and economic hardships during the pandemic.

           For the study, the researchers at NCHS analyzed death records from the NCHS and compared deaths classified as suicides to similar deaths occurring in 2019. It found that when a  national emergency was declared in March 2020, the biggest drop in suicides – 14% – occurred in April when COVID-19 deaths first peaked in the United States.

           Suicide rates dropped for all women in 2020 and fell for white males. And while suicide rates increased for Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Hispanic males, this only reached significance for Hispanic males. Suicide rates rose significantly among people 25 to 34, and fell significantly among people age

           The new data is provisional, Curtin said, however, when final information is available in early spring 2022, the researchers plan to break it down by geographic regions as well as method of suicide, she said.

           Still, it can be concluded that some people may be at higher risk for suicide than others. That risk group would likely include those with a family history of suicide or depression, recent job loss, economic downturn or history of prior suicidal behavior.

          This report comes from: Sally Curtin, MA, demographic/health statistician, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hyattsville, Md.; Jane Pirkis, PhD, director, Centre for Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Australia; Paul Nestadt, MD, assistant professor, psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore; Victor Fornari, MD, vice chair, child and adolescent psychiatry, Zucker Hillside Hospital, Glen Oaks, N.Y.; NCHS Data Brief, Nov. 3, 2021

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